I have a love-hate relationship with Rome. And it’s intense. Either way. There are days when I walk out of my gorgeous apartment into the cobblestoned street behind the Pantheon filled with the joys of spring, of Rome and of life. And there are others when I just want to get away. There is no rhyme or reason for this. Just a feeling. And over the last almost 12 months since I set forth on this journey of discovery, everything has been based on feelings. Mine.

In the past I was in my head too much. Do Do Do. Learn this. Read that. Do something better. Now I care not a jot for all that. Of course I learn…I am here in Rome to learn; of course I read, but to do something better or not is far from my heart. All I want to do is experience life in all its forms…raw, beautiful, tragic, romantic. The Money and The Box.

And Rome has been an extraordinary place for all that. I have been on my knees with tears more times than I can remember, with not just the beauty of this city, but with its emotion. Strongly, sometimes challengingly, masculine most of the time, then you turn a corner and there sits an exquisitely formed statue or a religious icon placed on a corner half way up the wall, missed by most and, on occasions, so beautiful and so evocative that you are stopped in your tracks.

Other times I am bothered to extremes by the number of people here, the hawkers in front of restaurants, fake meals beside them, hoping to lure one in and very much turning me off. The Africans selling unbelievable crap in every square: cardboard sheets with a million cellphone covers or cheap sunglasses attached, always at the ready to speed off up the street and out of sight when the Polizia arrive. I can tolerate them most of the time but when they offer me an umbrella when I have mine up or sunglasses when I am clearly wearing mine, my patience wears a bit thin. There are lots of beggars; they take up the same positions each morning. Mostly gypsy types and one knows that the large slice of what they gather goes back to some mogul in a castle in Romania, so I never give them anything.

There are lots of pick pockets in Rome – everyone warns you of the 64 bus from Termini to St Peters….but my friend Hans got robbed on another bus where he lost his wallet zipped into his vest before his very eyes. Except that he saw nothing, felt nothing and was grateful for a loan to travel back to Germany the following day. But one sees no serious crime here. One can feel entirely safe to walk around the city day and night. Young and old alike. And I love that.

For it is a city to walk. And to walk without hurry. To meander and to look upwards and see exquisite painted ceilings in majestic buildings or to take time to peek through iron gates at courtyards filled with marvellous fountains or ancient statutory.

When I chose my apartment it was with walking in mind and I chose it for two reasons: a 15 minute walk along back streets to school, and its proximity to my favourite building in the entire world: The Pantheon.

What a masterpiece, built about 127AD, it is magnificent. Its majesty has to be experienced, and I do that regularly with a nice Pinot Grigio at a bar facing the wondrous pillars. It is on my path to everywhere in this city….so it is a daily experience I look forward to. Sometimes I am on purpose and it hits me suddenly as its overpowering presence reminds me to look up and gasp in awe. Other times I meander along, knowing with pleasure that any minute from now it will be before me and I will again be brought to my knees.

I came here to better my Italian. And I leave with so much more. But to focus on the Italian just for a moment: it’s a language I love; most of us do, but languages are not my forte and I have stayed out of the classroom for too long. I have no ambition to translate my insurance documents for example and have the wonderful Mary in my village to do that. But I have been spending more time with the locals and I want to be able to converse more freely and better with them. So I chose Rome, found a school, booked an apartment and arrived: now I’m about to go and I cannot believe where a month has gone!

Scuola Leonarda da Vinci: Monday morning….no Tuesday, Monday was the day after Easter and the school was closed. A mass of students waiting to be categorised. Holy crap…an exam at 9 o’clock in the morning! I did not bargain for this, and I have not been in a classroom for a decade or more. Fifteen minutes to complete the exam then you were given a voucher for coffee and a croissant at a local bar. Ah, how I have come to love that bar. By now they know exactly what I want when I arrive and only two days ago did I discover I have been overpaying them daily. Still they deserve it for their friendliness and great service under pressure when school gets out for the mid morning break.

My plan was for morning classes and afternoon explorations as I had in Paris last year when I made a foray into the French language but I was assigned, reluctantly to a 2.15pm class with Alessandro. He turned out to be the perfect teacher, kind, knowledgeable, funny and didn’t make you feel a complete idiot when you totally screwed up. Which was often. Oh dear. I thought I knew so much more. I got Honours in Italian at the University of Melbourne. And now I know nothing. Words. Yes, I’m good at them. Know lots of them. But putting it all together. And pronouns specially when they are joined together “to him one of it I give”. Oh dear. And then of course I am so focussed on Italian that I completely forget English words. Che Peccato!!! I am hopeless. A total failure. And I hate the first week.

Later, when my friend Ellen in Paris said (like her golf) it is a lesson in humility I feel better. She is totally right. So I suck in the cheeks, do a bit of extra work and decide to go full out.

The class is a riot of Julias. Francesco alias Francis from Ireland who claims Sicilian roots, Buzz from Australia, the nomad who says she lives between London and Tuscany, and three Julias. Guilia Prima from Russia, where she owns a prep school, Guilia Seconda also from Russia but at school in the UK, and Julia Terza from Montreal where she has escaped her prep school and hooked up with cousins in la bella Roma. Later, when I move to weeks three and four, there are two more Julias. The delightful Juliana, a journalist from Bogotá, Colombia, and yet another Guilia from Russia. And there was Hans, history on legs, from Mainz who was robbed on his last day.

Weeks 2 and 3 were good…mainly because I felt in the flow a bit…and of course we were much rewarded by the after class cocktail of the hour: the Aperol spritz….that evil looking orange drink seen on the best tables in Rome this summer (well, not quite summer yet!) And then we discovered the best Pisco Sours in Rome…..ah but that’s another story.

So classes went well….I joined a second class with the wonderful Lauredana and it felt like we were having an animated conversation in her living room: all that was lacking was the vino. But we talked about the world economy, and politics and architecture and all sorts of subjects one or two levels above ordering food and buying clothes.

Speaking of which, I have done a good deal of both. Ah what a surprise. Not!

Food: One must never be tempted by what one sees outside a restaurant. No, find someplace filled with Romans and then you may get a good meal. I’ve been to the best pizza place in this city and it still does not equal my little joint in Piazza al Serchio and was twice the price. I’ve had the worst pizza in Christendom and the best pasta: ravioli stuffed with ricotta and pear in a blood orange sauce. It was mouth wateringly delicious. I’ve enjoyed amazing food at the ancient Cul de Sac, and the Roman specialty artichokes at Grazia and Graziella in Trastevere and enjoyed again the Caricci Siciliani where I lunched with Connie Schottky a couple of years ago when we escaped the madness of a Roman UPW one Saturday. I have had some utterly delicious gelati and an ordinary one which rather put me off trying any more. I have a kitchen at home which has remained virginal apart from an early morning coffee and a restaurant opposite me whose staff sit on my doorstep late into the night smoking and chatting.

Shopping: One is forever tempted by SHOES in Italy…and those of you who know me well know they are a particular weakness of mine. But the cobblestoned roads and the vertiginous heels on offer this spring/summer are an oxymoron to me. I have looked at dozens, even been tempted, but have gone for flats or ballets or wonderful but comfortable sandals for the summer. And fashion: yes there is lots: and I have been tempted, and I have bought. But I have limited capacity to move with all the things I covet so I have left most for others and taken just the pick of the bunch for me. This by the way is a new skill….or maybe just a temporary aberration!

Out of class I have spent time with Brueghel in a 500 year old monastery, the Chiostro del Bramante which was splendid; with Tiziano in the Quirinale, with the bronze Marco Aurelio on his horse in the Capitoline Museum, with Famous Australian Vogue photographer Helmet Newton and his nudes in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and with two Italian photographers of the 50’s and 70’s showing life in Trastevere then: an entire juxtaposition from Newton and his glamorous models (including Paloma Picasso) on the Riviera and at Lago di Como and even in Melbourne in the 70’s.

I have been on two interesting journeys: slumped back on a beanbag listening to an account of Marco Polo’s travels through the Spice Islands and India and China, and Zanzibar and Persia, accompanied by an amazing vista of more recent life in those places at MAXXI and on a camino with St Peter in the magical Castel Sant’Angelo. MAXXI is an amazing building designed by Zaha Hadid who just this week became the UK Businesswoman of the Year: her architecture is splendid and I enjoyed MAXXI for the space just as much as Marco Polo and the other exhibits.

And Rome has shown me some new friends too: lovely times with two friends of a British friend: Cristina the architect and her charming daughter, and Steve an American who is on the last legs of a 4 year sojourn here with the UN. And of course my fellow students with whom I have shared some great times: let’s please have just one more Aperol Spritz please before I go!!

So tomorrow is my last class. Have I learnt a lot? God knows. I think so. Time will tell and I will continue my learning. I am not content to leave it as it is.

And on Saturday I will return to the Garfagnana. To home. To my home. To the beauty and peace of my land. I can’t wait to see the swallows darting in the sky from my bed, to be able to hang my clothes again (yes that’s another story, to not live in fear of the 4 metre cupboard door falling off its hinges onto my again) to having more than 1 coat hanger (at more that €four figures a week!) and to having peace and quiet and solitude after this highly emotional stay in The Eternal City.

My Roman Holiday has been a dance. Powerfully and evocative, whether it is love or it is hate. Passionate, beautiful and ugly all at the same time. It has been a dance where sometimes one can lead just for a heartbeat but mostly one can not. It is not in your power to take charge. It is too ancient. It has seen too much. And for a feminine flowing soul like me sometimes it is too hard, too harsh, too dominant. Until that next corner and its beautiful surprises!

Until next time. With heart


14 March 2013

How I love the unruly nature of my Tuscany. Beautiful houses with their stucco peeling off and, in the summer, a piece of canvas flapping at the front door to keep away the odd fly, but with always of loaf of delicious bread bought daily for about a euro and a half from the baker in the square and a bottle of last year’s red on the table in case someone should call in.

The chattering matrons in the train, one with three large packets of my favourite Lavazza coffee, the spunky and very noisy kids fresh out of school, a few Tunisians and Moroccans probably out of work, and me, straight from SW3 with my pearls, my silk shirt and four seats’ worth of luggage!

Magnolia and spring blossoms outside proclaim spring of a sort and I remember the last day before I left in November when my central heating packed up and, all alone in my big house, I froze. Silvery Olive trees denuded of their fruit; two months ago now they would have been turned to delicious murky green oil and I start to salivate.

Paper factories outside Lucca, now another of their principal industries where in the days when Josephine Bonaparte was the fashion queen, it was silk.

Some things never change. Dirty windows on the train, kids playing on a soccer field and while plastic chairs randomly placed for a sit down and a chat, or not.

Without the spring and summer foliage hidden outhouses and work sheds become visible, probably the scene of much salami and prosciutto making each autumn. And a lot of red wine.

I have come to know and love this land well and am fired up once more to reclaim the resident status that eluded me last summer. How unfair that I had it for a decade when my villa was one of three homes to which I had a set of keys. Now it is my only home and they either don’t believe me or are too lazy to do anything about it. Methinks I’ll get a lawyer on the job to avoid another frustrating summer waiting for the police to visit twice in 3 weeks and be bothered to complete the necessary paperwork in triplicate or more.

The river looks icy and green and swollen but so far no sign of snow other than on the mountains around the valley through which the train seemingly crawls on the way to my piece of paradiso.

This time yesterday I was drinking red wine in an Earl’s Court pub next to my next autumn and winter residence at a wake for a dear friend’s son who had gone too soon. Today I am full of anticipation of my wondrous view and the drinking water straight from the mountains and my own bed. And I love and am so grateful for the juxtaposition of the joys that make up my life.

I can’t wait to throw my luggage in my car which, courtesy of the best mechanic on the planet, has been retrieved from the tiny box at the top of my village where it lives all winter and parked at the station to await my arrival, and head for my little supermarket. I am contemplating the mouth watering comestibles: wondering what shall I purchase for dinner and which bottle of red I shall retrieve from my cold half underground cellar to accompany it.

I am wondering if my internet will work or whether I’ll be on dial-up tonight and what will I discover in the box that I posted 12 months ago in Melbourne which has travelled as much or probably even more than I have in the year. My iPad will be flat as a tack and need dozens of system updates if it even works. What other surprises are in that large box are, well, surprises. I keep saying I should write lists when I pack and send stuff but I never do. Thankfully in 25 years of sending dozens of packing boxes here by ordinary sea mail I have lost only one: a set of brand new luxurious fluffy towels which apparently went down with a container and I got a mere $50 from Australia Post: not even a third of the postage costs.

But it will be home. And I can’t wait to arrive. But just for a short time…because Rome beckons and I must soon set forth for the Eternal City.
Until next time, with heart.